Trauma killed man in custody, report says

From The Oregonian, September 23, 2006

The state medical examiner ruled Friday that James Philip Chasse Jr., 42, died in police custody from “broad-based” blunt force trauma to his chest, which occurred early in his encounter with officers.

Dr. Karen Gunson said the injuries occurred as Portland police were attempting to take Chasse into custody at Northwest 13th Avenue and Everett Street about 5:25 p.m. Chasse’s ribs were fractured and the trauma to his chest impaired his breathing, Gunson said. Toxicology tests came back negative, meaning no drugs were detected in his system.

The medical examiner said she could not tell whether the chest injuries resulted from Chasse’s initial fall to the pavement or the tumble of officers falling on top of him. She called the manner of death accidental but said that is her medical determination and has no bearing on any potential court proceeding.

“I said accidental mainly because there was no hint that they were actually intending to kill anybody,” Gunson said Friday. “They were intending to take someone into custody, and he died, and they didn’t intend that.”

Portland homicide detectives have interviewed all the officers involved and are continuing to interview witnesses, Detective Division Cmdr. Cliff Madison said Friday. Police expect to present their criminal investigation to prosecutors next week, and it will probably be presented to a Multnomah County grand jury for review.

Mayor Tom Potter, who has been out of town since Sunday in Germany visiting his wife’s family’s hometown, was not briefed about Chasse’s death until late Friday. His staff did not think the case warranted interrupting the mayor’s vacation until the autopsy results came in. They scheduled a phone call late Friday night to inform him. During the week, Chief Rosie Sizer provided daily updates to Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who is council president this quarter and thus the man in charge in Potter’s absence.

Chasse’s death prompted at least two witnesses to file excessive-force complaints against police with the Independent Police Review Division. The witnesses also complained that Chasse didn’t get transported to a hospital and, instead, was taken to jail.

According to police, officers spotted Chasse acting oddly as if he were either on drugs or had a mental disorder and then possibly urinating in the street before they walked up to him. He ran and they chased him. Police said one officer “pushed Chasse in the back with his forearm, which caused him to stumble to the ground.”

Randall Stuart, one of the witnesses who filed a complaint this week, said three officers forcefully knocked Chasse to the pavement and landed on top of him and then wrestled with him, trying to arrest him.

Police say Chasse tried to bite one officer. Witnesses said officers, in turn, kicked Chasse repeatedly in the torso and then one officer pulled out a Taser gun and placed it to Chasse’s torso to stun him.

Police said the Taser didn’t have an effect. Witnesses said it appeared Chasse went unconsciousness, but was still breathing, for several minutes. Ambulance and fire paramedics arrived, and it appeared they checked Chasse’s blood pressure, witnesses said. Police said the paramedics reported that Chasse’s vital signs were normal.

The state medical examiner can’t figure out how that could have been. “That’s something I can’t quite understand yet,” Gunson said. “But it’s clear he had chest trauma rather early on in this whole event.”

Police handcuffed Chasse, bound his feet, carried him to a patrol car and drove him to jail, where he was accused of resisting arrest and assaulting an officer. But nurses at the jail evaluated Chasse before he was booked and said Chasse needed further medical attention and had police return to take him to a hospital. Police transported Chasse, but he died on the way to the hospital.

Stuart, when he heard the results of the autopsy Friday, said, “Oh my God, what a mess. Oh dear, that poor family.”

Chasse’s father on Friday referred questions to the family’s lawyer, Tom Steenson of Portland. Steenson could not be reached.